Saturday, December 19, 2020

Mobile data conspiracy theories and scientific illiteracy

Some fellow opponents of the Covid lockdowns are anti-mobile-communications conspiracy theorists. Vaccines are being served by some malicious powerful puppet masters along with a new generation of the mobile data and these things will cripple the world, they say.

You can imagine that I have mixed feelings about such allies (and the Nokia stocks in my portfolio, about 25% in the red numbers now, are among the smallest reasons for the mixed feelings LOL). On one hand, the Covid hysteria is the most urgent threat for the civilization in 2020 which is why one can't afford to dismiss too many allies. On the other hand, fear of the microwaves is quite an embarrassing symbol of scientific illiteracy. We live in a very imperfect world where we're forced to befriend people who are this ignorant of science in order to survive.

A friend of mine is into Eastern religions and she's also afraid of the waves that are used by the cell phones. They may cause cancer or other diseases, she tends to believe. Clearly, this fear is widespread. I am confident that it is correct to say that everyone who is really afraid of such things has zero understanding of physics, even at the undergraduate level, and if he or she has physics degrees, they couldn't have been legitimately earned degrees.



The electromagnetic waves may be more accurately represented as a flux of photons and whether we use the (classical) wave picture or the (quantum) corpuscular picture, the frequency \(f\) or the wavelength \(\lambda = c/f\) of the photon (or the wave) is the most important quantity describing the qualitative properties of some electromagnetic radiation.



The most familiar electromagnetic wave is the visible light. The wavelength goes from 0.4 microns (violet light) to 0.8 microns (red light) with the rainbow in between. Our eyes are capable of seeing these photons. Other photons may have wavelengths that are shorter or longer by many (or dozens of) orders of magnitude and there are many interesting frequencies and frequency ranges. But a sufficiently basic introduction adds

* wavelengths longer than the visible light (lower frequencies), and that includes the infrared light, microwaves, and radio waves, if we go increasingly far away from the visible light, and on the other side
* wavelengths shorter than the visible light (higher frequencies), and we go through ultraviolet light through X-rays to gamma-rays.

Photons of all frequencies may arrive from the outer space. Roughly speaking, the radiation with long enough waves, from radio waves to the visible light, is allowed to get to us through the atmosphere. We surely need the visible light from the Sun to see objects that reflect this (originally solar) light. And astronomers see objects through radio waves, too.

On the other side of the spectrum, the atmosphere shields us from the ultraviolet light, gamma-rays, and X-rays (some sufficiently energetic gamma-rays are actually shielded by the Cosmic Microwave Background – CMB+high-energy photon pairs merge and create electron-positron pairs, the opposite process to the pair annihilation).

That's good because these higher frequency photons are energetic enough so that they may ionize atoms and cause chemical reactions and rearrangements of molecules which may cause mutations and cancer when the molecule is a DNA molecule. Bad. Happily enough, it's this bad radiation that doesn't arrive to our bodies. This coincidence isn't just a good luck, it's really unavoidable. Those higher-energy photons are absorbed simply because someone else, higher in the atmosphere, is doing what the body would do otherwise, and gets disrupted by these photons, neutralizing them along the way. The advantage is that these molecules in the atmosphere don't get cancer and if they do (in some generalized sense), we don't care. ;-) There are (almost) no UV or X-ray or gamma-ray photons left for us which is both good and unavoidable. We're safe simply because we're hiding under the thick atmosphere that is "similar enough to us" and gets beaten instead of us.

Again, on the first side from the visible light, we have the low-frequency electromagnetic radiation. Our bodies don't really react to it. The photons are too slow and mild to disrupt atoms or molecules. At most, they can cause vibrations that are so slow that we may only detect their collective effect – which is heat. So the only way how the infrared, microwave, and radio waves may affect us to clearly feel anything (without special gadgets) is through heat. You may feel the heat from the Sun's infrared radiation when you're getting the suntan; microwave ovens directly heat the water in your food; and radio waves are capable of similar things if the intensity is high enough. That's it. The heat caused by these long-wavelength photons involves some rather slow motion of large enough molecules, the photons can't manipulate with individual electrons.

This is obviously an oversimplified picture. But it is extremely important – and really a basic pillar of a physicist's knowledge – for a physicist to know that it is the zeroth approximation to a more detailed knowledge. The real point is that it is overwhelmingly likely that the low-frequency photons will be missed or overlooked unless you feel them clearly enough.

When the intensity is low enough, the visible light can't heat us too much to feel anything. But the evolution has equipped us with the so-called eyes. It's the name for some apparatuses that are sensitive to the visible light (even if the intensity is low enough) which may be converted to electric signals that travel to the brain. And we see things. I want you to appreciate that the eyes aren't something totally omnipresent. Nature needed a long time to notice that something like that is possible; plus millions of generations worth of refinements powered by the mutations and natural selection to improve the structures of the eyes – and to end up with sophisticated enough eyes such as the human eyes (which aren't necessarily the only impressive eyes in Nature).

If you or Nature don't do this extra homework, the photons and other effects (and patterns in them) are probably going to be overlooked or otherwise missed. This is an important point in this text that I want to make. For a scientist, the default expectation simply must be that
...some particles or phenomena that don't have any implications that have been (or can be) observed clearly enough probably don't have any consequences or these consequences are going to be irrelevant and overlooked...
This is a rather general lesson, a generalization of some principles, but it is a generalization coming from a huge number of examples that a physicist (and perhaps any other good enough natural scientist) simply must know. At some level, the principle is really equivalent to the utterly uncontroversial statement that science is based on the empirical data! If someone expects something else, namely that
...even though we don't observe anything clear, every particle or phenomenon in the world deeply changes the events in the world and perhaps existentially threatens humans or the human race or the planet by some so far unknown, mysterious, invisible phenomena...
then he or she is completely anti-science. Science has been so harassed by the human stupidity and various anti-scientific (recently mostly left-wing) ideologies that many people are already afraid of saying elementary things like that but they are exactly as true as they have always been. Who believes that we're largely controlled by phenomena that cannot be observed and that aren't understood or can't be understood, is a believer in omnipresent witches, angels on the pin of a needle, ... he or she is simply a totally scientifically illiterate person.

Note that the principle "you primarily believe your eyes and if you don't see it, you should start by assuming that it doesn't exist or it isn't important" also affects the scientist's reasoning about advanced topics such as dark matter. An anti-scientifically oriented person may find dark matter to be a conspiracy theory, an unnatural or contrived construct. But a scientist knows that dark matter is totally natural. It's the default expectation that some matter is visible through one type or many types of telescopes but other matter is invisible. Dark matter is invisible. It must be expected that this set, "dark matter", is non-empty simply because it can't be quite trivial to build telescopes or apparatuses that can immediately "observe everything" including "matter of all types". Science simply allows many things that are unobservable at some moment (just like the human eyes which can't see photons of all frequencies), there is no contradiction about things' being unobservable, and the scientist simply assumes these things not to exist up to the moment when evidence emerges that the so far unobserved entity actually does exist! This is science. To assume that everything must be observed right away is anti-science; to assume that the world is controlled by invisible things where no evidence for their existence exists so far is anti-science, too. In science, one assumes that there may be some things that aren't observed yet (and might be observed in the future in some way) – but one mustn't build on the belief that particular things that haven't been observed and are backed by no evidence exist.

So the safety of the mobile communications is a simple physics problem. Low-frequency waves like that may only cause heat which is not terribly dangerous. But if the intensity is so low that we can't feel the heat, it can't be dangerous for us because the "danger" requires a much higher intensity than the "perception of heat". There may be some extra effects that are specific for certain frequencies or for certain situations but before we actually find some evidence for their existence, we must assume that they probably don't exist. If your default expectation is that they exist, you believe that the invisible ghosts, witches, and zombies are the dominant drivers of the Universe; you are an anti-scientific superstitious moron.

It doesn't mean that these lower-than-visible frequency photons don't interact with the biological systems or the atmosphere at all. But you know, a microwave antenna is a rather modest warrior. It's a microwave oven without the door. The radiation that could be enough to make your popcorn pop if the doors were closed will be diluted into cubic kilometers of volume. The concentration of the "evil" surely can't be too high. Cell phones may only detect it because they're very sensitive, artificially created gadgets, much like the human eyes that can see the visible light – even light at intensities that are much smaller than the intensities needed to feel the heat. As you increase the intensity, you first detect things by very sensitive gadgets; then by more regular gadgets; and only much later, the stuff becomes dangerous.

Fine, you may find out that 60 GHz is the frequency of RF (radio frequencies) that interacts with the oxygen molecules in some way. That's rather (or "dangerously") close to 25-39 GHz which is the frequency used in the emerging new generation of the mobile data, 5G. But even if you made the mistake and used the 60 GHz radio frequency, you would find out that your whole logic (about the looming catastrophe) was upside down. You assumed that your antenna was the Hitler who was eradicating the innocent oxygen in our atmosphere. But the actual balance of the power and guilt is upside down. The oxygen is the Hitler and it is causing the attenuation (weakening) of the innocent 60 GHz waves from the antenna! ;-) So what would happen is that these waves would be getting lost and the antennas and the resulting communication wouldn't work too well. That's the worst case scenario. If an unwelcome interaction exists, the smaller guy – a 5G antenna – gets defeated, not the Earth.

Finally, I want to say that "believing the unexplainable and invisible zombies and ghosts that actually control everything and that should be the primary drivers of our policy decisions" isn't the only utterly antiscientific feature of the people who spread conspiracy theories about the microwaves and similar stuff. What may be even more important than the ghosts is that they use a totally wrong and fundamentally dishonest method to pick what they're worried about. They're worried about random things that they heard from someone else; they just don't have any impartial let alone impersonal procedures to evaluate the validity (or likelihood) of a worrisome hypothesis.

So someone has said that 5G waves have killed the birds and he just parrots it even though none of the dead birds were parrots. (Some birds incorrectly connected with 5G were actually poisoned by chemistry.) Even more typically, a scientific organization publishes a report saying that "we cannot rigorously prove that 5G is safe". And that is used as a justification for the anti-5G Luddite activism. Look, an organization made an ambiguous statement!

But a scientifically literate person knows that it is a completely unscientific approach. We can't rigorously prove the non-existence of God or some other dudes from the Bible, either. It's simply because science is not a framework designed to be sure about the invalidity of the legends. The legends are often inspired by real things. They contain pieces that are true and other pieces that are metaphors of things that are true or can be true. They are very fuzzy bundles of fantasy, emotions, and poetry and science simply doesn't focus on such things at all! Science is ideally focused on the evaluation of as precise statements as you can get. The inability of physics to "disprove legends or poetry" doesn't mean that it is rational (or scientific) to be instinctively scared of the latest results of science and technology! Science is orthogonal to legends and poetry. Most of them are probably rubbish from a scientific viewpoint but legends and poems are not "rigorously constructed statements that are scientifically untrue". They are just some texts that are vaguely negatively correlated with science. And even if the scientific organization has evaluated a precise enough scientific statement, its not knowing a way to decide whether the statement is true or false doesn't mean a damn thing. Some people know how to solve a physics problem; others don't. The fact that some people can't calculate 12*12 doesn't imply that someone's calculation indicating that 12*12=144 is 50% uncertain.

Even though some phenomena are not known yet, folks who are afraid of unproven and invisible threats by default live in the realm of superstitions. The scientific approach is obviously the opposite one. In science, things are real or true if and when they can be observed or have been observed, directly or indirectly, with or without a help from some sophisticated reasoning or mathematics. If something isn't observed in any way (direct, indirect, sophisticated, straightforward), it really doesn't exist "yet" from the viewpoint of science; or it "effectively doesn't exist" when it comes to effects that are important enough to influence us. If we haven't noticed a negative influence of radio signals for a century, it is very strong evidence that such influences don't exist or they are very weak, probably negligible or tiny in comparison with the advantages that the wireless communication has brought to mankind.

The anti-scientific conspiracy theorists are amplifying cherry-picked legends and memes and the selection doesn't follow any rational rules (but the selection is often shaped by various egotist, material, or political interests of these people). The real point is that if you invent some convoluted hypothesis about a possible harmful effect of the 5G electromagnetic waves on your sperm (sperm really uses them to swim or something etc.), and you spread this story that you just made up as something that is "nearly a fact", then you are deceiving others and, more importantly, yourself because you may similarly invent a terrifying hypothesis about everything or anything but you chose not to.

Why don't you focus on the fake meat? Fake meat produced by Beyond Meat and similar companies may really be very dangerous because after some time, the cells in your stomach find out that they have been deceived by fake meat – which they digested as if it were real meat – and they stage an uprising. All stomachs of the people who have eaten fake meat will explode between 2028 and 2030, killing all these consumers. I didn't spend a second in optimizing the story. I was just randomly writing gibberish against a randomly chosen company, removing the shackles from my intrinsic creativity. If you're at least a little bit creative, you can invent a "theory" about anything that can throw some bad light not only on Beyond Meat but any company or any individual that you cherry-pick. You can write whole books that add many layers of details to these theories. This is the truly important point. The truly important point is that there is a huge difference between a theory that has some justification that is supported by particular data or calculations – or, ideally, multi-dimensional collections of data and/or arguments of many types – on one side; and a completely fabricated story that may "sound plausible" on the other side (and that clearly comes from an ensemble of trillions of similarly plausible stories). Everyone who obfuscates the difference is either a scientifically illiterate stupid person; or a person who intentionally deceives others even though he or she knows to be full of šit. Or both. In either case, it's very wrong.

So the sensible ones among us must stick to science – where we understand the basic particles as well as intervals of the photons' frequencies and their implications – and even when we include those who don't care about science, we must defend the principles of the Western society where people are allowed to do things that haven't been shown to be harmful to others. The invention of a "plausible story" that would imply that something is harmful to someone else is not evidence and everyone who obfuscates the difference between the two is an idiot or a nasty fraudster.

In particular, there exists no evidence that the mobile communication technologies are harmful for the public health, individual health, or ecology. Instead, many lines of evidence (incompletely but rich evidence) indicate these things to be safe (partial understanding of photons in many intervals, matter, as well as a century of real world experience with the waves at all these frequencies) so these technologies and their producers must be assumed to be innocent. The opposite approach, the precautionary principle, is a) a violation of the presumption of innocence, b) a reincarnation of the witch trials in which all undesirable real or hypothetical events are blamed upon some randomly chosen people through totally unjustified fantasies revolving around misunderstood, unspecified, and invisible would-be phenomena that have been pumped into the brains of a large enough number of morons – morons who are always eager to devour bullšit and/or start a witch trial. We mustn't allow our civilization to return to the Middle Ages and the precautionary principle is a tool to return to the Middle Ages.

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